MAKING SURE POLICE ACTUALLY “PROTECT AND SERVE”
It’s been a year since the killing of Michael Brown by a cop in Ferguson, Missouri set off a firestorm of rage and demonstrations. It gave rise to the “Black Lives Matter” movement. (All lives matter, of course.) This has been a summer of case after case of police shooting and killing unarmed men of color. African Americans and Latinos are violently abused by police across this country every single day. But not every incident is caught on camera. That may be changing with the growing requirement that police departments provide body cams and increase the use of cameras on patrol cars. One hopes those moves will reduce the carnage, but there’s also the very real possibility that some unscrupulous cops will monkey with the cameras at the appropriate time in order not to have their “out of policy” actions recorded on tape.
Among all of the incidents of cop shootings this summer, one particular case caught my eye because of its potential significance. This is the caught-on-tape incident of University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing shooting and killing Samuel Dubose after a seemingly routine traffic stop. This is noteworthy for two reasons. One: the head-spinning swiftness with which prosecutors investigated the case and actually charged officer Tensing with murder. He’s accused of murdering Dubose, an unarmed African American driver who was stopped and questioned by Tensing on a Cincinnati street. That’s astonishing, for several reasons. And secondly: the case is significant because it triggers a look at what differences – if any – there are between municipal police departments and university cops. Are the standards different? Is the training of university cops different from that of municipal or state police? I looked into that.
A body camera the Tensing was wearing caught the whole incident in Cincinnati. Usually in cases such as this, there’s a long protracted process of “internal review” by police, followed by an investigation by prosecutors. It usually takes a long time. And, history shows, the authorities hem and haw and ultimately, through twisted logic that strains credulity, claim that the fatal shooting was unfortunate but “within police policy.” In other words, the cop did nothing wrong. That’s usually how these cases proceed. Not so, in the case of Cincinnati University police officer Ray Tensing.
It’s instructive to take a second look at what the prosecutor said in releasing the tape to the public and in quickly concluding that a murder charge was in order. Cops are very, very rarely charged with murdering someone while on duty. When I first heard of it the day it occurred, I thought surely that hell must have frozen over. It seemed unbelievable. Hamilton County prosecutor Joseph Deters was emphatic and unequivocal. At a news conference he said the crime was “a senseless and asinine shooting.” He added, “This is without question a murder.” The prosecutor explained that the officer lied about supposedly being dragged by the car Dubose was driving. He lied about being threatened by Dubose. The prosecutor added: “I think he was making an excuse for the purposeful killing of another person… he should never have been a police officer.” You never hear angry words like that from a prosecutor.
The fact that the district attorney’s office acted so swiftly and decisively still has me shaking my head. And surely I’m not alone. And the fact that this happened has to be a byproduct of the activism that’s occurred over these many months to protest the killings of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Christian Taylor, Darius Graves, Walter Scott – and the list goes on and on. Where I live in Southern California there are the recent police shootings of unarmed men, which include Charlie Keunang and Ezell Ford. On and on. The people are holding the authorities’ feet to the fire.
Tensing will have his day in court in Cincinnati. His lawyer maintains he did nothing “out of policy” or illegal.
Communities must continue to organize and continue to apply pressure on the authorities to “do the right thing.” And police departments – and public officials who presumably govern the activities of police – have to carefully reexamine how they do business. It would be foolish to say that all police departments and all cops are somehow evil and intent on violently oppressing people of color. That is way too broad a brush. Police departments, obviously, serve a valuable function. But they must be structured so as to preclude wantonly violently excessive behavior on the part of their officers.
Being a cop is a tough job. But it’s a job that must be done responsibly, within the law. Most cops, one hopes, are decent people. But some are demonstrably not. And the rules and guidelines have to make sure bad cops don’t use their “color of authority” to act as if they were members of the Klan.
Police departments need to reevaluate their recruitment and training policies. And civilian review boards have to be established in order to constantly monitor the activities of potentially rogue cops. And those boards need to have the legal teeth to do the job.
But another issue arises from the Tensing case. Tensing was not a municipal cop, but a member of the Cincinnati University police force. It turns out, there can be a world of difference between the training and monitoring of university cops, compared to, shall we say, standard municipal police. There is a range of professionalism at work here.
I discovered that some college police agencies are not much better than your run-of-the-mill “security” team. Mall cops. The qualifications are minimal. The training is not extensive. But that’s not always the case. If a campus security force actually uses the term “police department” or “department of public safety” – rather than “campus security” it must adhere to certain mandatory legal requirements. It has to be on a par with, say, the Los Angeles Police Department or the California Highway Patrol.
A university police department – such as the department at Cincinnati University – has to be a genuine “police department.” And it has to adhere to the basic standards of municipal or state police departments. That means the requirements for applicants and the training for those accepted has to be commensurate with those of regular city or state police departments. Most campus police officers in such departments actually train at the academy of the region’s sheriff’s department or local police force. Thus, a campus police officer should be as qualified – and as responsible – as a “regular” cop.
That’s certainly a step in the right direction, but we’ve seen, of course, that even “regular” cops need better training than they are apparently getting. Otherwise, why would we have this nefarious cavalcade of cases of deadly excessive force? Questions have been raised about why Cincinnati’s Tensing was doing his police work outside the campus of Cincinnati University. Those and other questions may be answered when Tensing has his day in court. But meanwhile, all police departments would do well to closely reexamine whom they hire and how they train those men and women who have the power of the badge and the gun. It’s often the power of life and death.
Copyright 2015 by Luis R. Torres. University police photos copyrighted by Barrio Dog Productions, Inc. All other photos in the public domain.